Monday, 26 November 2018

Nicolas Roeg

At the present moment, I’m not sure have a lot to say about Nicolas Roeg that can’t be easily gleaned from the numerous, no doubt heart-felt, obits that are circulating online and in print, but nonetheless, it wouldn’t be right to let his passing go un-noted here.

Back in the non-linear, flashback past however, my younger self probably had quite a lot to say about him. Having grown up at around the time Roeg’s cult/critical reputation was really starting to glow, ‘Walkabout’, ‘Don’t Look Now’, ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, and, once I scored a copy, ‘Performance’ were all regular fixtures back in the late VHS era, just as they must have been for many others, screened in student bedrooms or on commandeered parental TVs, held up as peerless exemplars of “intelligent”, “risk-taking” cinema, smuggling full-on, perception-warping weirdness into ostensibly popular narrative modes.

Roeg’s famously fragmented editing and eye for powerful imagery always seemed to add a frisson of occult conjuration to proceedings back in the day, as we stared at distant, square screens, doggedly trying to follow the flow of the washed out, tape-fuzzed presentations that, in retrospect, must have made these grandly photographed, visually nuanced ventures seem almost incomprehensible.

Indeed, for his achievements as a cinematographer alone, Roeg could be considered a legend. Who else can you imagine helping to define the aesthetic of movies as diverse as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘The Servant’ and ‘The Masque of the Red Death’..? More-so than many other household name directors in fact, it strikes me that it was his sheer technical prowess that played a significant role in establishing the cult that has grown around him.

Whereas his never-quite-as-widely-acclaimed contemporaries in what I suppose you might call the more fantastique / out-there wing of post-1960 British cinema (Russell, Boorman, Anderson, and indeed Donald Cammell) have all been defined by the strength of their personalities, leaving their personal obsessions clearly stamped on just about everything they shot, Roeg by contrast was a more subtle, more low key brand of auteur, his vision defined more through form and technique than repeated imagery or subject matter.

Unlike the aforementioned directors, I have very little idea what kind of person Nicolas Roeg was, or of what he believed in. His work, on the surface at least, gives us few clues. At the risk of drifting into pretention, his films feel like exercises in letting cinema speak to itself, rather than of a filmmaker speaking down to his/her audience from on-high.

As such, they are exploratory (rather than didactic) works, in which on-screen characters have an independent life of their own, impossible to reduce to mere symbols or archetypes, even as the jarring, discontinuous editing similtaneously draws our attention to the artifice of the medium.

Having ‘done’ the greatest hits of all of the filmmakers referenced above at an early age, revisiting and reappraising their work has been on my long list of ‘things to do’ for some time. In Roeg’s case, the process has already begun, in that last month I watched ‘Don’t Look Now’ for the first time in years, and appreciated it more than ever.

Rather than all the clever-clever stuff about fragmented timelines and premonitions that used to fixate me as a teenager/student, I can now follow the film more as the purely emotional narrative that Roeg presumably intended, seeing how instinctively his outré technique serves to enhance the rather more prosaic, but no less horrifying, story Sutherland and Christie are telling through their remarkable performances.

(Having become an aficionado of giallo cinema since my last viewing, I also enjoyed exploring the strange notion that Donald and Julie’s story seems to be taking place in parallel with some sort of Umberto Lenzi movie about a killer dwarf, in which they appear as mere cannon fodder/supporting characters.)

The film still has that intangible air of magic(k) about it, that Kenneth Anger-esque sense of the editor’s scissors casting some dark spell, placing a curse as tangible as anything in M.R. James upon the characters (and, consequently, upon the audience)… but now perhaps, I’m old and boring enough to understand that that is not really the point.

I can only hope that revisiting Roeg’s other key works over the next few years might prove similarly rewarding, and rest assured, I also have both ‘Bad Timing’ and ‘Eureka’ sitting unwatched on the shelf, awaiting some quiet evening when I’ve got both the time and energy required to take on such (presumably fairly challenging) viewing experiences.

Perhaps at that point, I’ll have something a bit more insightful to say about Mr. Roeg, but for now, I’m simply happy just to have turned in what I’m fairly certain must be the only obituary to have name-checked Umberto Lenzi.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Further thoughts on…
Train to Busan & Seoul Station
(Sang-ho Yeon, 2016)

 For a film that initially seems such an exercise in conceptual simplicity, there certainly seems to be a lot to say about Sang-ho Yeon’s South Korean zombie hit ‘Train to Busan’.

My initial review of the film, which I posted here last month, was bashed out in note form almost immediately after my first viewing, and I have subsequently grown to feel that the criticisms I expressed therein were quite unfair, and that I failed to really get to grips with what the film is trying to say – hence the necessity of a revisit.

A repeat viewing (paying closer attention, in different company) left me considerably more impressed by the scope of the film’s socio-political message, and by its (perhaps deliberate?) rejection of the cynical individualism that has come to define post-Romero zombie films.

Additionally, correspondence with the estimable Grant Balfour drew my attention to his thoughts on the film, posted a while back on his equally estimable zombie-theory blog Brian Tasting. As part of a wider exploratory work of (if you will) ‘zombie theory’, this piece is naturally framed in rather different terms to the kind of excitable blather we specialise in here, but it is thought-provoking reading nonetheless, and helped spark a few synapses with regard to the interpretation of the film which follows.

And finally, on the recommendation of reader Ian Smith (who commented on my first review), I have also recently purchased and watched ‘Train To Busan’s prequel / companion piece, the animated feature ‘Seoul Station’, and I am very glad I did so.

Not only is ‘Seoul Station’ excellent (one of the most impressive exemplars of “realistic” animation I’ve seen to date, it is very nearly the match of its live action counterpart in terms of action, scripting, human drama etc), but I was also startled by how pointedly different it is to ‘Train To Busan’ – so much so in fact that it almost feels as if it could have been produced to specifically address the kind of concerns I raised in my initial review of the latter.

I realise that this is a slightly disingenuous way of looking at things, given that the two projects were clearly produced in parallel (IMDB suggests that ‘..Station’ actually premiered two months before ‘Train..’), but the extent to which they function as “two sides of the same coin”, each seeming to address potential issues that an audience may have with the other, is remarkable.

In an attempt to convey my thoughts on all this is a coherent fashion, I’m going to split what follows into two parts – firstly, a new take on ‘Train To Busan’, specifically aiming to look at it in the context of the post-Romero zombie tradition, and secondly, a consideration of ‘Seoul Station’, and the way in which it’s drastically different approach moderates the ideas put forward in ‘Train..’.


As you may recall, one of my initial arguments re: ‘Train to Busan’ was that the film essentially removes the zombie sub-genre from the horror genre that gave birth to it, replacing the always somewhat existential terrors of a horror film with a more uplifting, “survival against the odds” narrative reminiscent of a disaster movies in the ‘70s ‘Poseidon Adventure’ / ‘Towering Inferno’ tradition. (1)

Although as a horror fan I initially had mixed feelings about this change of emphasis, I now tend to believe that it actually represents a refreshing step forward for the sub-genre in some ways, allowing ‘..Busan’ to mount a more significant challenge to our expectations of zombie cinema than its no frills plot may initially suggest.

Tracing this way back, I suppose you could say that the horror film has always basically been predicated upon ideas of sadism and voyeurism, and upon the violent disruption of quote-unquote “normal” human relationships - transgressive monsters-from-the-id running rampant, Freudian nightmares and all of that sort of thing.

Being horror films first and foremost, zombie films have naturally tended to reflect this, and their destructive/transgressive themes have become particularly amplified with regard to family relationships, partly at least I think because prime instigator George Romero had a real bee in his bonnet about family stuff. (Look at Romero’s non-zombie films for instance, and you’ll note that there are very few which do not use people having a bad time with their relatives as a central plot point.)

As a result, the ‘heroes’ of Romero's zombie films are pretty much always loners or loose groups of free-ranging individuals, whilst family responsibilities are conversely seen as a burden - as something which will drag people down and destroy them - and most subsequent zombie films have been happy to follow this lead. (2)

‘Train to Busan’ will probably be criticised by horror fans (including myself) as a kind a “zombie-lite” confection - with mainstream popular appeal and little in the way of gory or upsetting content – but I am now more inclined to argue that this perceived lack of “guts” (whether figurative or literal) should not be confused with an attempt on the part of the filmmakers to side-step the thematic complexity and serious dramatic intent necessary to sincerely convey this harrowing tale of unimaginable awfulness.

As Grant concisely states in his Tractatus (linked above):
“The site of difference for Train to Busan is located in the thematic zone of family.”

Indeed, ‘..Busan’ is perhaps the only canonical post-Romero zombie film I am familiar with in which familial relationships are seen as a source of strength and inspiration for the able-bodied, adult characters, rather than one of constriction, vulnerability and, ultimately, doom.

Upon repeat viewing, it becomes clear that the film’s occasionally soap opera-ish ‘family stuff’ is not mere the kind of space-filling, set up stuff we expect from a horror movie. Rather than simply existing in order to ensure our emotions are appropriately manipulated alongside our jangled nerves once the monsters are on the rampage, it is instead the very heart of the thing, just as much as it is in, say, ‘Don’t Look Now’ [to remain in-horror, but non-zombie].

Once this is established furthermore, ‘..Busan’ proceeds to follow an admittedly familiar disaster movie / survival horror pattern in demonstrating the way in which flesh-and-blood family relationships can become easily mutable, their accompanying responsibilities transferable, during times of crisis.

Whereas many filmmakers may be have been apt to present Seok-woo (Yoo Gong)’s determination to protect his daughter at all costs during the early part of the film in an uncritical, positive light, director Sang-ho Yeon instead goes to great lengths to ensure that his protagonist’s decision to prioritise the safety of his own father/daughter unit at the expense of helping others is repeatedly shown up as both selfish, and, more to the point, ineffectual. (Slight cognitive dissonance may result here for viewers used to accepting Hollywood’s traditional doctrine of unearned exceptionalism.)

Through his interactions with the film’s other survivors (most particularly, with the parallel two-person family unit represented by Dong-seok Ma and his pregnant wife Yu-mi Jung) Seok-woo gradually learns how easily protective family can be transferred and reshaped for the benefit of all, whenever survival is threatened.

Given that Seok-woo’s most pointed critic on this matter is his own daughter, and that subsequent events lead him to what (avoiding spoilers) can only be described as a full-scale Damascene conversion, the film could scarcely have made its point re: the benefits of collective rather than unilateral action any more clearly.

Through this collective redistribution of responsibility, it is shown that those traditionally seen as a survival-threatening ‘burden’ in zombie cinema (children, the elderly, pregnant women) can be whisked forward toward safety with comparative ease, bypassing the inevitable path toward grim, basement apocalypse that ‘Night of the Living Dead’ has forever etched in our mind as the natural fate of the rigidly inflexible family unit. (3)

By completely overturning this Romero / horror film paradigm, by portraying love and family responsibility - and beyond them, simply fellow humanity - as something that actually drives people to greater feats of survival and self-sacrifice, ‘Train to Busan’ can actually thus be seen as a very brave and innovative addition to what is traditionally an extremely cynical and misanthropic sub-genre.

If ‘Night of the Living Dead’ provided a kind of ultimate “fuck you” to the nuclear family values and perceived social conformity of the 1950s, fifty years of subsequent zombie movies have hammered that point home so thoroughly that Romero’s proto-survivalist notions of pragmatic individualism, so shocking in their day, have now more or less become the norm across a whole swathe of popular genres. (4)

By pulling a complete 180 on this, at a time when the mainstream of culture and politics is arguably becoming more systematically cynical and hyper-individualistic than ever before, could ‘Train to Busan’ in some sense feel just as radical in 2018 as NOTLD did in 1968..?

Well, maybe I'm taking all this a bit too far, but, whichever way you look at it, my second viewing of ‘Train..’ makes clear that the film’s central message is a practical rather than sentimental one, and it is hammered home so relentlessly, so clearly, by the on-screen action that I feel like absolute blockhead for failing to accord it due prominence in my first review.

Refuting not just Romero but the all-too-common misinterpretation of that old chestnut about the plank from Matthew’s gospel, ‘Train to Busan’s message is: help others before you help yourself, otherwise all will perish.

It is not exactly a subtle message, or a new one, or one that is terribly difficult to grasp, but if we expand it beyond its immediate context and apply it to the perilous global situation we currently find ourselves in, it certainly makes a mockery of my earlier assertion that ‘Train to Busan’ lacks political clout.


Moving on to ‘Seoul Station’, the differences between ‘Train to Busan’ and its animated “prequel” are so self-evident they barely need to be stated. Developed in parallel by the same writer-director and producers, the two projects are clearly designed to function as thematic opposites in just about every respect, from the train / station dichotomy evident in the films’ titles right through to their underlying moral philosophy, and the vision they present of life in present day South Korea.

Whereas ‘Train..’s titular journey takes place in daylight, commencing in the early morning, the events of ‘..Station’ occur at night, allegedly beginning during the previous evening. (5)

Whereas the vast majority of the characters aboard the ‘Train..’ belong to the mainstream of society – predominantly middle-class, with recognisably ‘normal’ interpersonal relationships and at least enough money to travel between cities on a high speed train – those left back at the ‘..Station’ are, without exception, rejects from that society - the homeless, the destitute, runaways, criminals and lowly service sector employees, all essentially friendless and alone in the world. (6)

Whereas the filmmakers’ depiction of the reaction of the authorities to the zombie threat remains ambiguous (or rather, irrelevant) in ‘Train..’, the attempts of state security forces to respond to the outbreak in ‘..Station’ are shown to be as incompetent, inhumane and catastrophic as anything in Romero’s filmography.

Whereas family relationships sit at the heart of the drama in ‘Train..’, imbuing its characters with strength and heroism, the few interpersonal relationships depicted in ‘..Station’ are sketchy, abusive or transient arrangements which tend to conclude in the most horribly upsetting manner imaginable.

In fact, whereas ‘Train..’ could be accused by horror fans of soft-pedalling on both the social criticism and transgressive violence stipulated by the Romero zombie film blueprint, ‘..Station’ presents us not only with an excess of repellent imagery but also a plotline which more or less consists entirely of social criticism, much of it expressed in bitterly angry, unflinching terms.

Whereas the dramatic high notes in ‘Train..’ are provided by scenes of noble, heroic self-sacrifice, the emotional core of ‘..Station’ is instead represented by a scene in which an elderly homeless man and a teenage runaway weep uncontrollably in an empty subway tunnel, each lamenting their inability to return to a home that no longer exists. (A circumstance which, crucially, could have played out in exactly the same manner even without the intervention of flash-eating zombies.)

Indeed, in terms of the kind of grand metaphors that inevitably accompany post-Romero zombie films, ‘Seoul Station’ most directly addresses the theme of homelessness (in both the literal and archetypical senses of the word).

We spend a great deal of time during the early part of the film in the company of the homeless population who subsist in and around the station. It is grim, cheerless stuff, and, presumably, one of the main reasons why ‘..Station’ seems to have failed to match the commercial momentum of ‘Train..’, as Yeon captures that dull ache of guilt that always accompanies first-hand encounters with homelessness all too well.

As we experience the faceless coldness with which the entreaties of the homeless are dismissed by the harried security guards and cleaners who represent the only fellow humans who are actually obliged to deal with them, and, subsequently, the way in which their increasingly urgent concerns re: the imminent zombie apocalypse are ignored and belittled, we begin to understand that, for these homeless characters, the moneyed commuters who more-or-less step over their bodies on a daily basis have become so distant and unrelatable that the transition to dealing with flesh-eating zombies is only further degree or two down the ladder from their usual day-to-day.

And, conversely, when the over-worked and underpaid station staff eventually figure out what’s going on, they can’t help but see the zombie onslaught as an (admittedly alarming) escalation of the problem represented by the homeless hordes who are usually banging on their perplex doors day and night with complaints and requests for help.

If all this sounds as if it could be adding up to a pretty preachy zombie movie, well, let’s just say that ‘Seoul Station’ benefits – fairly remarkably, given its status as an animation - from some instances of carefully nuanced characterisation that help the film to engage with the complexity of the issues it is addressing, preventing it from becoming a mere exercise in hand-wringing guilt.

Far from the down-on-his-luck saint of Hollywood hobo tradition, the (nameless?) homeless man whom we follow through the early portion of the film, as he attempts to alert the authorities to the fact that his “buddy” is in the process of contracting the zombie virus, is a painfully damaged and clueless individual. Precisely the kind of irresolvable, walking problem that anyone who has ever worked behind a counter or helped out at a chairty will instinctively dread the approach of, the personal failings that have led him to his lowly position in life are, sadly, just as clear as the societal ones.

Given that this man is one of the few characters in the film who is sufficiently good-natured to actually try to help others before himself moreover, the fact that his efforts are so completely ineffectual feels like a pointedly cynical rejoinder to the humanitarian message of ‘Train to Busan’.

Likewise, I was impressed by the brief scene in which several characters get into an altercation with the commanding officer of a police unit busy confining civilian survivors to a kind of perilous no man’s land between their riot shields and the zombie hordes. Far from the kind of doltish, authoritarian strawmen whose thoughtless actions serve to rouse our anger in Romero’s films, the guy who is reluctantly calling the shots in this particular clusterfuck is actually very relatable.

A tired, worried man doggedly obliged to pursue the strategy decided upon by his superiors against what we assume to be his own gut feeling, he takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes as our protagonists berate him, momentarily defusing the situation by quietly talking to them on the level, more or less telling them that there is no chance of a good resolution here, so they might as well just beat it and forget about their friends behind the barricade.

With an admirable lack of subtlety that yet again puts me in mind of Romero, ‘Seoul Station’s conclusion sees the film’s few exhausted survivors limping their way into an actual complex of newly built, “dream home” demo apartments, there to enact a shocking, plot twist-driven conclusion that seems more like the kind of thing that might have played out in an early Takashi Miike yakuza movie than something we’d expect from the director of ‘Train to Busan’ – a conclusion furthermore in which, once again, the close proximity of flesh-eating zombies is largely incidental.

If ‘Seoul Station’ and ‘Train to Busan’ have anything in common in fact, it is the use of the zombies as an impersonal force of nature, rather than as a gothic horror-derived atavistic / existential menace. (The conclusion to ‘..Station’ may admittedly have a certain gothic kick to it, but it is one delivered solely by the human characters.)

In both films, the zombies essentially function as a mechanism for accelerating pre-existing tensions and relationships between human beings, taking them straight to their natural conclusion, stripping away the months, years or decades it may have taken for the characters to reach this point of mutual understanding or closure in zombie-free circumstances; a conclusion which the filmmakers’ manage to frame in euphoric, ultimately uplifting terms in ‘Train..’, and, well… quite the opposite in ‘..Station’.

It will be up to the viewer, I suppose, to decide which is the more impressive of the two achievements, but more impressive than either is the realisation that it is not really a choice. Taken together, ‘Seoul Station’ and ‘Train to Busan’ comprise a more cohesive cinematic Yin-Yang than I can recall ever previously seeing from two parallel / sequential films by the same director. Just as there can be no good in life without the bad, either half of this two-film equation feels slightly empty without the other; as in life itself, you’ve got to take ‘em both, or let them go.


(1) Echoing my own observation about the zombies in the film functioning like a tidal wave, my wife’s immediate reaction to watching the film for the first time was to insist that it must have been intended as a fictional response to the East Asian tsunami of 2011, giving voice to the filmmakers’ belief that people need to work together for their mutual benefit in such situations, rather than prioritising individual safety. 

The likelihood of this may be slightly undermined by the fact that the Korean peninsula was largely unaffected by the 2011 tsunami, and indeed has suffered mercifully little damage from major natural disasters during the 21st century thus far, but I definitely take her point re: the film’s likely real world inspirations and wider narrative intent.

(In a horrible irony meanwhile, my brief research on this point revealed that the city of Busan was actually hit by a typhoon in the same month ‘Train to Busan’ premiered.) 

(2) The only exception to this I can think of is the pregnant woman who makes a getaway in the helicopter at the end of ‘Dawn of the Dead’... something that is perhaps being vaguely referenced by the ending to ‘..Busan’, now that I think about it, even as it simultaneously throws a humanist raspberry towards the more famous ending of ‘Night of the Living Dead’.

(3) For an even more potent demonstration of the way in which ‘Train to Busan’ upturns the universe according to Romero, contrast the portrayal of the parallel male/female couple and father/daughter units in ‘..Busan’ with the singularly horrible fates suffered by their direct counterparts in what is arguably Romero’s most powerful (certainly most under-rated) apocalyptic film, 1973’s ‘The Crazies’.

(4) There is probably a wider point to be navel-gazed here re: the notion that the primary legacy of the beat / hippie counter-culture that crested at around the same time NOTLD saw release actually had nothing to do with greater social freedoms or the expansion of pacifist/humanist causes, but was instead centred around the widespread celebration of *individuality*, as contrasted with the perceived consensus conformity of earlier generations. The very same celebration of individual agency, which, in its nefarious alignment with the machinations of advanced capitalism, many would claim is now slowly killing us all fifty years down the line, perhaps…? (2,000 words on this on my desk in time for next week’s lesson, please class!)

(5) Whilst I don’t want to interrupt the main text with such nit-picking, I’ve nonetheless got to take some time to address the fact that the time-frame within which these two films co-exist really doesn’t seem to make a great deal of sense, whichever way you look at it.

During the night in which ‘Seoul Station’ takes place, the zombie outbreak is seen to reach fairly apocalyptic severity long before the sun rises, with the area around the station entirely abandoned to the zombie hordes. As such, the idea that a full compliment of passengers gathered to board a train there the following morning without noticing anything is amiss until after they have departed is, frankly, impossible to accept. (I mean, I’m not going to let this spoil my enjoyment of two very good films or anything, but, y’know – just sayin’.)

(6) As Ian Smith points out in his comment on my original post, the traumatised homeless man who sneaks aboard the train in ‘Train to Busan’ seems to represents the only “crossover” between the worlds of the two films.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Belated Happy Halloween Everybody.

Well, phew – that was a lot of fun. My productivity both in work and day-to-day life may have suffered, but knocking out over 28,000 words of horror movie reviewin’ in the space of a month proved very enjoyable. Although I’ve fallen one short of last year’s total of fifteen reviews, I’ve still just about managed to meet my self-imposed ‘post every two days’ deadline, despite being derailed both by extra-curricular ‘Train To Busan’ re-evaluation [watch this space], and by the need to bang on for absolutely ages about Mandy. My review of The Monster Club just about made it under the wire at 11pm on Tuesday night… and we’re done.

Huge thanks to everyone who took the time to leave comments, or simply to read these posts – I really appreciate it, and I’m sorry I haven’t had a chance to reply to some of them yet; all have been most apposite and welcome.

I hope that your own October was just as full of gratuitous and irresponsible wallowing in horror movies as mine has been. To finish things off nicely, here are a few brief-as-possible run-downs of some other movies I’ve managed to fit in this month, but have lacked either the time or inclination to write up in full.

All The Colors of The Dark 
(Sergio Martino, 1972)

Making Martino’s other gialli look like light-weight trifles in comparison, ‘All The Colors Of The Dark’ (which I returned to for the first time in a few years late weekend) makes for an oppressively heavy and intoxicating viewing experience. The film’s Polanski-esque immersion into the increasingly unreliable perceptions on a woman on the verge of complete nervous collapse leads to an airless and claustrophobic feel, and, unusually, Edwige Fenech makes for a fairly inscrutable and unsympathetic heroine on this occasion, meaning that the ninety plus minutes we spend following her every move are rather less pleasant than her fans may have anticipated.

The non-supernatural elements of Gastaldi’s script are likewise fairly tedious and over-familiar (a fact not helped by the film’s infuriating habit of introducing characters who look almost exactly like other characters), and Martino seems to struggle at times with extracting his preferred level of stylistic grandeur from the unusually drab British locations.

When he does get his mojo on though, the film crashes into heady, oneiric territory with almost frightening glee. Susan Scott / Nieves Navarro is great as the spaced out, witchy neighbour character, and the castle-bound Sabbath / orgy sequences she leads Edwige to are far stronger and more rapey than I remember from previous viewings - both totally freaked out and genuinely rather upsetting. (My wife was absolutely mortified by the bit where a cute little doggie gets sacrificed. Oops - I’d have held this one back for solo viewing if I’d remembered.)

Meanwhile, Ivan Rassimov drips menace as only he can, glowering mightily in his distinctive fashion, and, as fans will be well aware, Bruno Nicolai’s music is absolutely off-the-hook. One of the most raging, psychedelic Euro-cult scores of all-time, it adds hugely to the film’s overall impact.

Indeed, ‘All the Colors..’ remains an essential slice of full strength giallo / euro-horror business – the cinematic equivalent of being force-fed claret and sleeping pills, more or less – even if it falls to some extent into the “easier to admire than to love” basket.

Black Moon
(Roy William Neill, 1934)

Despite a wonderfully alluring poster and the always welcome presence of Fay Wray, this voodoo / plantation island tale from Neill (who went on to become the regular director for Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series) has never really gained much traction amongst vintage horror fans – probably due to the fact that it is both profoundly mediocre and very, very racist.

Lacking either the dream-like atmospherics of ‘White Zombie’ or the intelligence and subtlety of ‘I Walked With a Zombie’ (and, indeed, lacking any zombies), I suppose you could at least make a case for this one as the go-to template for all subsequent undistinguished voodoo b-movies, but that aside, it has very little going for it – unless you’re scared of black people I suppose, in which case… well, I suggest seeking psychiatric help rather than wasting your time watching old movies.

Actually, my one pertinent observation here is that this film represents an example of prevailing social attitudes having changed so profoundly in the eight decades since it was made that (child sacrifice notwithstanding), the supposed “bad guys” (ie, the black islanders and the white lady who grew up with them and digs their culture) now seem vastly more sympathetic than the stuck-up, slave-owning “good guys”. So, that’s quite interesting, I suppose?

Meanwhile, the staged voodoo rituals are filmed with a sweaty, feverish intensity, and the manipulative imperilment of a white child within them would almost certainly not have been allowed once the Production Code kicked in a year or two later…. but, beyond that, nothing much to see here folks – please move along.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that, unless you’re working on a biography of one of the principal cast members or carrying out a study of colonialist attitudes in 1930s horror films, there is very little reason to watch this in the 21st century.

Dr Phibes Rises Again!
(Robert Fuest, 1972)

It recently occured to me that, although I have naturally seen Robert Fuest’s ‘The Abominable Dr Phibes’ (1971) many times over many years, as is only right and proper, I’d never actually got around to watching the sequel.

With this oversight duly corrected, I can immediately understand why this one is somewhat less well-regarded than its predecessor. Whereas the first Dr Phibes film feels like a perfectly formed cinematic creation, with every detail carefully planned out in advance, ‘..Rises Again’ by contrast is absolutely all over the place, feeling very much like a series of random incidents strung together with little rhyme or reason, leaving all kinds of incongruous bits and pieces flapping inelegantly in the breeze.

This is especially unfortunate given that Fuest’s plan for this film seems to have been even more extravagantly ambitious than the first one, with Dr Phibes’ decision to decamp to a network of cyclopean ancient Egyptian ruins allowing the director to indulge in some of the most wildly imaginative (and, no doubt, expensive) sets and props of a career spent more or less specialising in such things. (Caroline Munro’s Rolls Royce coffin is a definite highlight.)

I’ve not yet had a chance to dig into the various extras on the blu-ray, but one suspects that a perfect storm of budgetary and scheduling problems, studio interference and unsympathetic editing may well have led Fuest to crash and burn here.

No one could accuse him of not giving it his best shot however, and whilst ‘..Rises Again’ is objectively a far poorer film than its predecessor, that thankfully doesn’t prevent it from being an absolute hoot from start to finish – a raving mad car crash of fiendish weirdness, the like of which has rarely been seen before or since, with an extraordinary cast and some murder set-pieces so grandiose and surreal they even eclipse those of the first film.

I mean, really, what can you really say to the sight of Milton Reid getting a golden snake rammed through his brain (I think that might actually be my favourite scene from either film), Hugh Griffith being cast out to sea in a giant gin bottle (rather cruel I thought, given his well-known drinking problem), John Thaw getting his face chewed off by an Andean Condor, and the likes of Terry Thomas, Peter Cushing and Beryl Reid all turning up for no apparent reason to take a bite out of the scenery before disappearing again..?

It would take a hard-hearted movie fan indeed to witness such wonders and still emerge complaining that the script doesn’t make much sense, the humour is puerile and the make-up effects are a bit iffy. Highest possible recommendation.

Zombie Creeping Flesh
(Bruno Mattei, 1980)

AKA ‘Hell of the Living Dead’ and probably about a dozen other things.

Claiming that this is the best film ever realised by the dynamic duo of Mattei and Fragrasso may not sound like much of a compliment, but… there ya go, make of it what you will.

Unfortunately, ‘Zombie Creeping Flesh’ is marred by a veritable avalanche of poorly matched stock footage during its ill-advised cannibal movie-style middle section (not only do we get to see grey elephants stampeding across the majestic plains of Papua New Guinea but I think they cram in enough National Geographic ‘native tribal customs’ clips to cover about three continents) -- but, if we can leave all that aside, I’d argue that all of the legit, men-on-the-scene type stuff with our team of hard-boiled commandos tangling with the zombies is actually pretty damn boss.

The mad laughing, Klaus Kinski-type dude is great; the business with the zombified kid is brutal (but great), the Baader-Meinhof style terrorist siege that introduces us to the commandos is, uh, *kinda* great, the stolen Goblin music on the soundtrack is great, and the whole opening section with the zombie outbreak in the power plant is awesome.

And, nearly forty years down the line, dare I even suggest that the film’s once laughably heavy-handed political sub-text actually now seems pretty on-point, vis-à-vis the developed world inflicting plague and environmental devastation upon poor island communities..? Not least in the eerie (and weirdly audacious) scene that sees New Guinea’s representative at the U.N. angrily pleading his nation’s case to a near-empty chamber.

Well, anyhow - it may not be as funny as Zombi Holocaust, as icky and dream-like as ‘Burial Ground’ or as brilliantly mental as Cannibal Apocalypse, but if the clock strikes midnight and you find yourself in the mood for some rock solid Italio-action-horror goodness, this one won’t let you down.

Salem’s Lot
(Tobe Hooper, 1979)

I’ve never been much of a Stephen King fan, so I’ve not read the novel, but I can easily believe that this leisurely three hour TV-mini-series-converted-into-theatrical-feature type effort gives a pretty good impression of what the experience of reading it might be like, complete with reams of extraneous sub-plots and secondary characters, heavy small-American-town-gone-to-seed vibes, and a brave, easy-lovin’ novelist with big glasses turning up to save the day.

Overall, this isn’t a bad vampire story – nothing too earth-shattering, but there are plenty of effective moments; it’s interesting to see James Mason of all people popping up as the sinister, vamp-enabling antique dealer, Elisha Cook seems to have wondered straight in off the set of ‘Messiah of Evil’ six years earlier, the circa ’73 fashions everyone wears already seem to be gathering dust, I loved that little jeep with the canvas door that the playboy writer guy zooms around in, and there’s some choice stuff with the pre-‘Lost Boys’ vampire hunting monster kid character. (DAD: “magic, monsters – what do you see in all this?”, KID: “I dunno, I just like it I suppose – the same way you liked numbers, so you became an accountant”.)

Things take a startlingly apocalyptic turn towards the end (I could have done with a bit more of that), and the eventual revelation that the head vampire is none other than motherfucking Graf Orlok himself is absolutely brilliant – like his silent-era predecessor, he’s a pure monster-vampire who doesn’t mess around, and a truly terrifying figure.

So that’s good, but, ah, I dunno – unless you watched this on TV at an impressionable age or you’re a big King fan, I don’t think ‘Salem’s Lot’ will really knock your block off. *SHRUG* It passes the time well enough, I suppose, but I wouldn’t really recommend prioritising it unless you’ve got a lot of time on your hands.

Actually, perhaps the most surprising thing here is the revelation that cantankerous wild man of genre cinema Tobe Hooper once managed to direct over 180 minutes-worth of blandly proficient TV movie story-telling without freaking out or doing anything crazy (well, not on-screen, at least). I’ve not read up on the background, but I’m guessing that perhaps it was this uncharacteristic fit of good behaviour that got him the gig on ‘Poltergeist’..?

And finally….

(David Gordon Green, 2018)

Well, this was a bit of a mixed bag. As is outlined at length by Robert Skvaria’s review at Diabolique, this “forget all the other sequels” sequel to Carpenter’s original faces serious problems with regard to its scripting, its attempts to tell a character-based story and its questionable approach to mental illness. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the opening twenty or thirty minutes are flat-out dreadful.

Some plummy-voiced true crime podcasters go to visit Michael Myers in a Bedlam-style loony bin where the inmates stand in the yard chained to lead weights and howl like dogs. Some doctor is like, “Donald Pleasence is dead now, so I’m here – any questions?”, and everyone goes on and on about the “legend” of Myers, unveiling artefacts and reminders from the original film as if they were The Holy Grail and…. please god, make it stop.

Well, thankfully, it does more or less stop, and from the moment Myers is on the loose, things improve considerably. The strongest element of H-2018 comes via the fact that director Green understands The Shape, and how best to use it – ie, as a purely cinematic conceit, rather than as a flesh & blood “character” (god forbid).

He realises that when the on-screen characters struggle for survival, they are not battling against some guy in a mask, but against the fiendish ingenuity of the filmmakers themselves, and his film proceeds to exploit this forty year old revelation extremely well.

I’ll say straight out that I do not really give a damn about Michael Myers’ psychiatric diagnosis, or about Laurie Strode’s troubled family history, or about her granddaughter’s poorly realised (and ultimately pointless) high school shenanigans – and, more to the point, this film does very little to make me care about them, despite exerting great effort in trying to do so.

But, each time the switch flicks into “horror mode” (and thankfully it stays there for the entirety of the second half), the game is on, The Shape is in play, and the pay-offs are extremely satisfying. Forget all that script stuff, revert to your lizard/survival brain, and enjoy, because as well-crafted stalk n’ slash hokum, mixing wink-nod references to the original with some new surprises, H-2018 really does the business.

(It’s nice to hear Carpenter and his boys back on soundtrack duty too. I wouldn’t say that their re-working of the original score is exactly a knock-out, but I appreciated the way they held back the main theme for so long – just dropping it when it really counts – and the addition of some squelchy, doom metal guitar chords sounded nice through the cinema’s sound system.)

Oh, and the eventual message of all that Strode family hand-wringing by the way? Seems to be that becoming a paranoid, survivalist prepper may alienate you from wider society, harm your children and destroy your family relationships in the short term – but they’ll all come running back to you in tears as soon as a monster shows up, so it’ll all turn out good in the end. Hey, I can dig it. Sure makes a change from “love conquers all”.

Happy post-Halloween November drudgery, everybody!